Alastair Dalton: Spotlight on ScotRail after Flying Scotsman fiasco

Nearly half a century after steam trains disappeared from the rail network, the power they still hold over people was vividly demonstrated last weekend.

The fiasco surrounding the Flying Scotsman's trips will put the spotlight on ScotRails plans for steam. Picture: Michael Gillen

Organisers tell me that in all, some 50,000 people turned out across the Lothians, Borders and Fife to watch the Flying Scotsman locomotive’s triumphant return to Scotland after its lengthy refurbishment.

The trips on Sunday from Edinburgh to Tweedbank in the Borders and across the Forth Bridge to Fife went off with barely a hitch – in stark contrast to the extraordinary news 48 hours before that had threatened to scupper them.

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For reasons yet to emerge, at 4:40pm last Friday, officials from track owner Network Rail’s main office in Milton Keynes phoned West Coast Railways, the train’s operator, to say that safety checks to ensure Flying Scotsman would not scrape bridges and platform edges on the routes had not been completed.

By all accounts, Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy went ballistic, and, along with chief executive Mark Carne, ordered their main man in Scotland – ScotRail Alliance managing director Phil Verster – to pick up the pieces.

Within 24 hours, it had all been sorted, a major publicity disaster was averted, and 830 passengers and the 50,000 lining the routes enjoyed a fantastic experience.

Full details are expected from the investigation which Mr Carne ordered immediately, which I hear is likely to be published.

However, this is apparently not the first time things have been left to the last minute over the planning of steam and other heritage rail trips, albeit not with such glaring reputational consequences for Network Rail south of the Border.

I’m even hearing that steam is regarded in some parts of the rail industry as a nuisance that threatens to disrupt the orderly working of the rest of the network.

ScotRail seems to be avoiding that in its own steam plans for this year, by limiting excursions on the Borders Railway – in August and September – to Sundays when the largely single-track line is quieter, so that it does not have to cancel other trains. Last autumn, demand for the twice-weekly steam specials on the newly-reopened route was so great that extra carriages had to be added.

However, the train operator was strangely coy about talking about the plans this week, days after the euphoria over Flying Scotsman’s visit.

It would not say whether steam trips are also planned elsewhere. This is despite the franchise agreement with the Scottish Government committing ScotRail to at least four trips between April and September, on at least three routes.

The company’s website says only: “Following a successful summer of steam trains journeys in the beautiful Scottish countryside, we’ll be offering you more chances to experience the joy of steam travel in 2016. Watch this space for more details.” It’s now May, so what are they?

It’s all very odd. When Abellio took over the ScotRail contract a year ago, it appeared to be cock-a-hoop about steam, and was “taken by surprise” at the buzz its proposals had created.

It said: “From the reactions we’ve seen so far, you are as excited as we are about these plans.”

A veteran of the business told me this week that if handled properly, steam can bring great rewards, but without care, could cause badly-burned fingers.

We want to hear from Network Rail how things almost went so horribly wrong. But we also want to hear from ScotRail how they are going to do things right.